Episode 6Avian Assassination & Teaching Science
00:00 / 18:47

Details and Transcript

References

Theme Music​

Transcript

To my spectacular family and friends. Near and far. Old and new. This is Kevin Mercurio on the mic. And welcome to the sixth episode of the Metaphorigins Podcast.

 

To show support if you like this sort of content, please make sure to rate and subscribe to the podcast on Apple or whatever platform you are listening to this on, and follow @metaphorigins on Instagram, where I will be posting most of my updates, as well as on my personal website: kjbmercurio.com/metaphorigins. I will hold another sort of giveaway on the 10th episode, so stay tuned for that.

 

Okay. Today’s episode goes back to the usual grind, and I’ve chosen quite a unique expression that champions all of it’s alternatives.

 

Let’s set the environment. Assume this crazy scenario: you’re stuck at home with nothing to do on a weekend. It might be hard, but let’s just say that’s the case in this day and age. You and your partner have done it all: cleaned every corner of the apartment, binged watched your favourite TV shows, read your favourite story by that cool author Kevin Mercurio on his ScaleneWriting account. And it’s only 4 in the afternoon…

 

“I’m bored,” your partner says.

 

“Well so am I,” you reply.

 

As both your lifeless eyes stare out from the window at the beautiful spring day, your partner suddenly exclaims, “I have an idea! We didn’t clean the windows yet!”

 

“Aw let’s do something fun,” you say instead, “let’s go out for a walk.”

 

You each get your running shoes on and head out the door. Luckily there’s a nice forest trail a few blocks from you, just passed the local market. That’s where you and your partner practically prance to in the hopes of relieving this boredom.

 

It is a beautiful day indeed. The smell of fresh rainfall and flowers fill your nostrils as you each take long, deep breaths. You guys have been walking for quite a while now, and made it to this clearing atop a hill to watch the sunset. It was a marvellous sight.

 

Then, utter darkness.

 

“Uh, honey, you know the way back?” Your partner asks.

 

“I thought you did…” You say.

 

You begin to be aware of crickets and other ghastly sounds as they become louder. You both groan in disappointment. It is quite a ways a way back home. The two of you wander down paths and turns before your partner rests on the trunk of a fallen tree.

 

“It’s hopeless,” they say, “we’ll never make it out of here. And I’m hungry.”

 

“It’s probably just a few more minutes in that direction, we’ll make it out,” you state in your attempt to reassure. “Let’s take a small break here.”

 

More sounds of insects and birds surround the two of you. In the tree in front, there’s a particular grouping of what look like a flock of crows. They’re very noisy and they seemed to be irritating your partner.

 

“I can’t take this anymore,” they say, “and those birds! They’re so loud!”

 

“It’s okay dear, let’s just…”

 

They interrupt you. “Stupid birds! Why can’t you all just shut up!” Your partner grabs a stone off the ground and chucks it at the group. plonk! plonk! frushhhh! Two things hit the ground and all you can make out is a scatter of what look like hundreds of birds out of the tree.

 

“Hey it looks like I got some!” Your partner says excitedly.

 

“Something’s not right, let’s just go,” you try to utter, but your partner is already running to the bottom of the tree. They come back holding two animals in their left hand.

 

“Look! I killed two birds with one stone! What’re the odds, huh? We can eat them for our dinner tonight.”

 

You look at the animals in her hand and freak out, “Honey, those are bats!”

 

You both scream off the top of your lungs and run in the direction you were initially heading. Suddenly you see the lights of the market. You finally make it out of the forest.

 

“Oh thank god,” you say in relief.

 

“Ugh, I need to wipe this bat blood off me,” your partner says.

 

And the two of you head home, through the market of vegetables, seafood, pork, chicken, monkeys, ferrets, and pangolins.

 

A bit of an extreme setup, having patient zero to this coronavirus as your partner. But the expression they used is such a great archetype of a figure of speech, used time and time again to describe the payoffs of an efficient solution. But, why did this one require avian-slaughter of the highest degree?

 

What is the origin of the expression “kill two birds with one stone”?

 

***Theme music***

 

 

Most of this information was obtained from several articles and speech forums that have debated on the different origin stories to this expression. All sources will be mentioned in the description.

 

The Cambridge Dictionary describes the expression “to kill two birds with one stone” as: to succeed in achieving two things in a single action”. In our grizzly example a few moments ago, by literally killing two bats with one stone, your partner solved the two problems of being irritated by their loud noises and their growing hunger. What a knucklehead your partner is!

 

The savage language of this idiom has been noted as “offensive”. One charming internet user on a wordsmith.org forum posted stating that it was “an embarrassment to the language”. After being questioned by users alike, they double down stating quote “it is exactly that casual—or thoughtless—reference to unnecessary killing which is problematic, and helps make the term offensive”. Exclamation mark! This expression has really ruffled some feathers.

 

It’s ubiquity is also noted. Various different countries have translated the English phrase into something of their own. In Chinese culture, the phrase “yi shi er niao” is often used, literally translating to “one stone, two birds”, no killing stated, but I guess implied? Richard Ford from qlanguage.com suggests that it may have been adapted from this Chinese expression. Lucy Pickford on GoGoNihon.com finds another original Chinese adaptation when talking about the Japanese alternative, translating in English to “an effort, double advantage”. The expression stripped of any context into its simplest form.

 

Other cultures have developed their own spin of blunt force trauma. Many European countries have specified the type of bird to hit, like pigeons in Italy, and doves in Greece. Other countries have swapped birds for other animals. For example, in Portugal and Ukraine, birds are switched with with rabbits or hares, and in Germany and the Netherlands, flies are the ones given the fatal blow. The French don’t even choose which animal to stone with their expression “Faire d’une pierre deux coups”, and Poles just like to “roast two pieces of meat on one fire”. 

 

And there are other alternatives to killing animals and eating meat, for any animal rights activists and vegetarians out there. Nicer versions mentioned in J. Ray’s A Complete Collection of English Proverbs are “Grow two trees with one seed”, “Make two friends with one gift”, or “carry two faces under one hood”. Regarding the structure of the expression, it can be completely changed but still regain its initial meaning, like “in one fell swoop” or “all in one go”.

 

But let’s get back to the origin. We’re going way back to the 1600s. PhraseFinder and other sources state its modern form first came up in the writings of philosopher Thomas Hobbes. Yes, this man surely was engrossed in the art of language. But it was John Bramhall, also mentioned in this podcast, that stated “Thomas Hobbes thinks to kill two birds with one stone, and satisfy two arguments with one answer”. You see, an attempt by a philosopher to prove multiple arguments with one single solution was deemed absurdly challenging, and often this expression carried a negative connotation. It wasn’t until later that its usage became more of a means of expressing efficiency or productivity.

 

Other sources state that it was derived from Greek mythology. Ovid, a Roman poet known for his epic Metamorphoses (wait, is that where my podcast name originated from?), has been credited with the origin. However the story goes that the character Tireseas, a blind prophet of Apollo, came across two mating snakes and threw a stick at them. Hera, the Goddess of women, marriage and family, was so displeased that she transformed him into a woman. Perhaps this random, unwanted outcome is why it initially carried a negative connotation.

 

Also in Metamorphoses is the story of Daedalus and Icarus. Most people know this story as the origin to the idiom “don’t fly too close to the sun”, which I might get to in a later episode. But before Icarus melted his wings, his father, the skillful craftsman, had to devise them. Scholars have suggested that Daedalus had “to kill two birds with one stone” to create artificial wings and escape the Labyrinth of Crete. But others think that this didn’t happen at all, and wax was the only thing used. How you can fly with artificial wings made of just wax, I guess we will never know.

 

But the most likely origin story is described by Patricia O’Connell, creator of Grammarphobia and author of Woe is I. She and other sources state the modern phrase did originate during the time of Thomas Hobbes. At that time, the term stone was short for “gunstone” which was another term for a bullet. Birds were often, and still are, hunted for food. Yet, a common phrase that was used and started 100 years earlier was “to stop two gaps with one bush”. This aphorism was first mentioned in the Proverbs of John Heyward, and English writer, in 1546. Taken literally, its the solution of transplanting a bush such that it would cover two gaps in a fence.

 

And that, seems to be the most credible origin story to the expression “to kill two birds with one stone.” An adaptation to an original phrase about 500 years ago, and championed all alternatives to reach us in modern day.

 

***Theme music***

 

 

For this science segment of the episode, I would like to speak about the heterogeneity in the educating abilities of science teachers, mainly that it’s far skewed towards the “poor educators” side of the distribution.

 

Perhaps that’s not true. Maybe the educating abilities of all science teachers are actually normally distributed, in a general sense regarding the criteria for what makes a good teacher. But why does it feel like that’s the case? Regarding from my own experience in undergrad, I certainly had very little academic mentors to look up to in my courses. The only ones I could think of were the professors teaching what were already topics of interest to me, like Dr. John Basso for Microbiology and Dr. Marc Ekker for Molecular Biology (although I found their enthusiasm in the topic enthralling). Or if they’re teaching was so absurd that it was that distinctness that resides in my memory, like Dr. Colin Montpetit for his cheat sheet rules and Dr. Vasek Mezl for his, how do I say, rounded solutions to easy calculable problems (he’s even made it onto urban dictionary, to Mezl something, or complicate something beyond the point of no return).

 

And if I go even further to high school, I could think of only a few who inspired me to continue with science. There was Mr. Orzel, who would often be trying to reconcile his highly religious beliefs with physics due to students nagging him about it (what devils catholic high school kids are). But there was also Mrs. Wawryn, my 8th grade science teacher, and Mr. Bondy, my 11th and 12th grade chemistry teacher, who would turn the curriculum into something hilariously fun. Perhaps it just takes one or two to persuade a young mind to venture down a career path.

 

But I digressed. This topic comes from a somewhat recent opinion piece by Dr. Adam Grant, organizational psychologist at University of Pennsylvania and host of the TED podcast “Worklife”. This article has been saved in my Pocket app since it was published back in August 2018 and I have just read it now. The piece is called “Those who can do, can’t teach”.

 

In summation, he discusses various incidences in which brilliant people have often been poor educators. Einstein was famously a dull but brilliant researcher, where one to three students would register for his courses, even after his landmark publication on relativity. These incidences are often described as the “curse of knowledge”, where he cites the writing of Sian Beilock, president of Barnard College “As you get better and better at what you do, your ability to communicate your understanding or to help others learn that skill often gets worse and worse.”

 

Dr. Grant recommends the following points to consider if you decide to learn from an “expert” in a particular topic. Firstly, pay attention to how recent the teacher studied the material. Are they in tune with the fundamental knowledge that is required before a lesson can be learned? Secondly, note how difficult it was for the teacher to master the material. Did it just “click” for them, or did they work hard at truly understanding the material? And thirdly, notice how well the teacher can communicate the material they know.

Starting with the first, it’s extremely important how long the teacher has been engrossed within their discipline. Take a professor who has been conducting research in molecular biology for 50 years, versus a newly appointed associate professor. Not always, but is it likely that the associate professor remembers the basic knowledge required to understand more advanced theories in the field? Do you think that the older professor can explain the concept of genes, genetic mutations, DNA repair mechanisms, and proteins in a modern way before understanding how something like CRISPR-Cas9 works? It probably just makes sense to them. 

 

For a real life example, did you know that there are multiple kinds of infinity? Dr. Marcus Miller describes this elegantly in his Tedx Talk on the Beauty of Math and Music, in which he overlays general arithmetic, natural numbers and real numbers to come to more advance conclusions.

 

In addition, the new professor had just recently studied it and applied all that in their work. It is also important to be in tune with what it was like being a student, how things didn’t make sense at one point. The new professor probably has the patience and overall empathy to students trying to understand several ideas at once.

 

Second, was the teacher a genius? I mean, they didn’t have to be a genius, but did they have to work hard to fully grasp a scientific topic? Albert Einstein or Richard Feynman likely had very little issue in understanding advanced topics in physics (though Feynman was regarded as having very good teaching abilities). I would expect that those experts that worked hard to grasp concept after concept to arrive at the latest advancement in their field can at least describe to students the tips and tricks that got them to that high level of understanding.

 

Third, communication. How well does the person communicate any sort of idea? Do they do it in a way that’s intriguing and interesting? Do they stir curiosity in students to motivate them to reach their level of understanding? This is probably the most important and goes hand in hand with what I’ve discussed in most of my episodes thus far. It’s not as simple as regurgitating the knowledge found in textbooks and published papers and expect students to take initiative. Personalize it, create a story that clings to prior ideas of students and gives them that novel way of viewing the world.

 

And how do we address these issues? There is agreement that teaching actually enhances learning. Do you fully understand something unless you can explain it? A quote ironically credited to Einstein is that “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” Biographies about Einstein have credited the actual quote to Lord Rutherford, in which you should be able to explain the laws of physics to a “barmaid”.

 

Perhaps teachers, especially professors, could be encouraged and incentivized to develop their educator skills. Moreover, perhaps there should be some sort of agreed upon teaching standard, in which potential candidates for a teaching or professorship position demonstrate they have the ability to articulate a concept clearly and simply. This is in opposition to the current norm of, for professors, the amount of publications in their repertoire.

 

I admit that research ability will provide institutes with the best opportunity to make money. But shouldn’t the scientific community, and all high level disciplines aspire to both advance their fields and prepare the next generation?

 

Just think about it.

 

The opinion piece is a good read with interesting citations, which I would recommend to gander on.

 

Thanks for listening to this episode of… Metaphorigins. Remember to rate and subscribe for more episodes and to follow the podcast on Instagram for updates on the next draw for a really cool item on my 10th episode. But until then, stay skeptical but curious.

 

***Theme music***

I'd love to hear from you.

  • LinkedIn - Black Circle
  • Twitter - Black Circle
  • Instagram - Black Circle

© 2019 By Kevin Mercurio. Proudly created with Wix.com